Modern American warriors seem to fall into two camps, the “kill ‘em all” macho machines and the “be kind and they will love us” humanitarians. The truth is that neither extreme will ever get us where we need to be.
Operation Dinner Out 
I read “The Kill Company” when it was fresh on the rack in 2009. That was the moment I decided to subscribe to The New Yorker.
It’s a great piece of reporting (even if its author confuses “insure” and “ensure”) concerning Iraqi deaths during Operation Iron Triangle in 2006. Those deaths were murders, and the American servicemen who pulled the triggers have been convicted.
The colonel in charge of the operation (Michael D. Steele, the inspiration for Jason Isaacs’ faux-Georgia drawl in Black Hawk Down) was not present and did not order the killings. Yet they effectively ended his career advancement. The article, which asks if his kill-centric rhetoric set the stage for a massacre, suggests that the real reason for the sudden dead-end was a philosophical rift between the warrior (Steele) and the rebuilder (another Army officer, General Peter Chiarelli).
That rift is what I really want to talk about.
Borrowing from signs put up as an Army joke, Steele’s people become the “carnivores,” Chiarelli’s the “herbivores.” The meat-eaters want to show the enemy (and everyone else in the AO) that they are not to be trifled with. The meat-eaters are more concerned with making sure American troops stay alive, to the point that even when capturing the enemy seems next door to a slam dunk, it’s better to shoot him in his tracks (barring an actual surrender). The vegetarians, on the other hand, want to minimize Iraqi casualties to show that we are a benevolent people. They notice a correlation between water/power outages and enemy attacks, so they prioritize service expansion and building projects.
And, of course, those two worldviews think they have to go to war against each other.
Roots in an Ugly Past
Like a lot of things in our nation’s current military and political climate, I think both extremes come out of Vietnam. Both sides see it as a cautionary tale, but which part is “cautionary” varies based on which side you ask.
The connection is most tenuous for the carnivores, as their tradition predates the Vietnam conflict. Even so, I promise you that at least some of them are so loud about being the biggest, baddest swinging clods in the neighborhood because they believe our failure to be that in Vietnam is what lost that war and brought shame on this country.
For the herbivores, it’s the opposite. They see how Westmoreland turned swaths of country into free-fire zones, displacing our supposed allies and destroying their homes so that they could either become permanent refugees or join the Viet Cong. And when they look at that (among other bizarre failings of tactics and humanity), they think they see why we lost in Vietnam. For them, the key is to be the good soldier, the friend the locals will want to walk hand-in-hand with, helping us to help them.
The thing is, they’re both right about what we did wrong. And both extremes are, themselves, also wrong.
The Cafeteria Tactician
Francis J. “Bing” West, a former assistant secretary of defense and Marine officer, put a book out in 2011 called The Wrong War. It is specifically about current events in Afghanistan, a country he has visited six times during the present conflict. And while Afghanistan and Iraq are quite different in many respects, some of the same basics apply.
West’s thesis is pretty simple: We need to shift away from aid, which builds dependency and actually sows conflict amongst the groups vying for our dollars, and instead focus on kicking the heinies of those who oppose us. Kick ‘em hard and kick ‘em all over the map. Keep kicking ‘em and do it so soundly that they know we will always beat ‘em – and so that our allies will know they too can beat ‘em and keep beating ‘em when we’ve left.
Mark West up as a carnivore then, eh?
Well, yeah. But that’s only half of it. See, West is speaking from personal experience. He took part in another Vietnam, a tiny Vietnam war concurrent with but very different from Westmoreland’s. West was with the first Combined Action Platoon, a USMC enterprise that put tiny volunteer units into South Vietnamese villages to fight alongside the locals while protecting them from the VC. A far cry from the scorched-earth policy that harmed allies as well as enemies throughout the rest of the country – including the Iron Triangle of Vietnam, which was presumably the namesake of Steele’s now regrettable operation.
West wrote a book about that platoon back in 1972. It’s called The Village, and though it went unnoticed at the time it is now rightly considered a vital work in the Corps.
At one point, a Marine taking a walk stumbled onto an orphan being beaten by his “auntie,” the woman who housed and clothed him as a sort of male Cinderella. The next door neighbor accosted the Marine. In West’s words: “Since he was big and rich, the woman asked, why didn’t he do something about it?”
He did. He bartered the boy away from his abuser and took him into the Marine encampment. Soon the boy, whom the Marines called Joe, was inviting the other village children to join the Marines for breakfast on a rotating basis – and to do the washing up after.
West sums up:
The Marines held no illusions that they might reap significant military benefits from the goodwill they were gaining in the village when the schoolboys told their parents about their eating adventure. The Americans were not trying to win the hearts and minds of the villagers so that they would rise up and drive out the Viet Cong. They did not expect the average farmer or housewife to provoke retaliation by providing them information simply because they acted as decent human beings. So could the Viet Cong. Through their breakfast guests, the Americans anticipated only one benefit: escape from washing dishes.
When he says they held no illusions, West is perhaps being fairly pointed. And he is right to. When “herbivores” within our military and among our politicians expect to win friends by behaving like decent people – by not being a Westmoreland, you could say – they set our troops up for bitter disappointment and death. If you expect not to be stabbed in the back, just for being a nice guy, then the first time you are stabbed in the back (and the second, and the third, and the fourth…) you will be that much more disgusted with the people you had planned on calling allies.
And you will be stabbed in the back. The Combined Action Platoon was, just as they expected to be. We too often forget that we are visitors in these people’s worlds – whereas they have to live there once we’re gone. Their situation is much too complicated for a few nice-guy gestures to change their world overnight.
But this, too, is true: As the Marines West served with in Vietnam consistently worked to do the right thing by the villagers they lived with and worked with – all the while kicking Viet Cong tail and taking names – the village as a whole came to accept them more and more. Though they did not count on any military advantage from goodwill, they did gradually reap those benefits even as they remained prepared to reap the opposite.
The success of the CAP program was not one of carnivores or herbivores, but one of human omnivores. Hardened warriors who treated those they didn’t have to destroy as equally human. 
 Congratulations if you caught the Spy Game reference. I couldn’t resist, however clumsy a connection it is to the “carnivores” and “herbivores” debate.
 One of the men convicted of a crime in the matter walked away from his commander rather than participate in the murder. The crime he was convicted of was, on his return, putting a painfully dying Iraqi out of his misery after another soldier botched the killing. Is this sort of kindness really a crime for a soldier, trained specifically to take life and to do so in an environment that requires split-second decisions?
 As to the issue of whether or not Steele is responsible for the murders outside Tikrit (a side issue to this piece but the central question of the New Yorker article), I think the answer is no. The build-up to those murders is a fascinating study of the fluid dynamics that are human communications and decisions, and it’s completely plausible that Steele’s rhetoric was one factor that, if removed, would have prevented those murders. But that by itself does not put them on his head, considering the premeditated nature of the killings and Steele’s actual (appropriate and noble) intent. I wish he had toned down a few talking points, but verbal nuance is not what we pay military commanders for.
 These excerpts are taken from pages 173-176 of the 2003 Pocket Books edition of The Village, which includes a new afterword describing West’s return to the village decades later. The people there still harbored fond feelings for the United States Marines, for whatever that’s worth.
 As a… ‘parting side thought’? on omnivorous warfare: Steele’s love for Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing is obvious even before Grossman’s name comes up in the New Yorker piece. Which is kind of funny because Grossman (who has popularized the “sheepdog” metaphor for military men) is something of an herbivore. Read “The Dark Power of Atrocity” (beginning on page 203 in the book) and then compare its perspective on battlefield conduct with Steele’s own. Hell, a subhead reads “I’ll Shoot You Myself,” giving Grossman’s personal disincentive for his men to kill those they don’t have to in a combat zone. In the end, Steele’s bravado – including having his men take part in a massive brawl prior to deployment so that Iraq wouldn’t be their first taste of violence – served a very real purpose of keeping his men alive, and Grossman’s served a very real purpose of keeping them sane. Both are terribly, terribly important to a successful and worthwhile (read: righteous) war. And in my opinion, both men need a few edges knocked off their particular rhetoric. These two ideals are not diametrically opposed.